Considered in Grand Committee
These regulations, which from now on I will refer to as the Representation of the People Regulations 2009, have a link to the European parliamentary elections this year in respect of the registration of overseas Peers, but also include separate provisions relating to anonymous registration for eligible electors in any relevant election.
This statutory instrument has been subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission. The commission has advised us that it supports all of these changes and, in relation to anonymous registration, has stated that it will ensure that vulnerable people will have better and more consistent access to the attestation process, while ensuring that the evidence required in support of applications remains sufficiently stringent. What I have to say may be part of an answer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in the previous debate.
These regulations amend the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. In summary, they will make minor yet important changes in respect of applications for anonymous entries in the electoral register; make modifications to provisions relating to the registration of overseas Peers for European parliamentary elections, primarily to ensure consistency with other changes in electoral legislation; and thirdly, as I mentioned earlier, make provision for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board, which now carries out the statistical functions of the Office for National Statistics.
As mentioned earlier, the anonymous registration of electors came into force nearly two years ago. Applications for anonymous registration have to be accompanied by evidence in the form of, first, an attestation by a qualifying officer confirming that the safety of the applicant or another person in the applicant’s household would be at risk if the register contained the applicant’s name or address; or, secondly, that there is a relevant court order or injunction as listed in the regulations.
The amendments in these regulations make changes in respect of who constitutes a qualifying officer and the types of court orders and injunctions that may be used in evidence to support an application. First, in respect of qualifying officers, we are making changes to the level of police officer able to attest applications. At the moment, only a chief officer or chief constable can do so, which means that all applications presented at a police station have to be transmitted to headquarters for signing. This statutory instrument allows police officers of the rank of superintendent and above to attest applications. This means that applicants will, in most circumstances, be able to have the attestation undertaken at their local police station.
Secondly, the statutory instrument makes minor amendments to provide that an attestation signed by any director of adult social services or childrens services in England or the equivalent in Wales can be submitted in support of an application in either England or Wales. The amendments also include any chief social work officer in Scotland within the meaning of qualifying officer. Therefore, in these respects, the amendments make the 2001 England and Wales regulations consistent with the current 2001 Scotland regulations.
This statutory instrument also amends the 2001 England and Wales and 2001 Scotland regulations to include within the meaning of qualifying officer any director of social services of a Northern Ireland health and social services board, and any executive director of social work of a Northern Ireland health and social services trust, as these office holders were previously not included.
Finally, the draft SI amends the list of court orders and injunctions that may be presented as evidence in support of an application for anonymous registration to include those made under relevant Northern Ireland legislation. This will ensure that no matter where a specified order or injunction is granted in the UK, it can be submitted in support of an application for anonymous registration.
Turning to other amendments within the Representation of the People regulations, the Representation of the People Act 1985 enables Peers who are resident overseas to vote at European parliamentary elections. The current regulations apply with modifications to certain legislative provisions for the purpose of registration of this category of elector. There are not many of them. As part of our preparation work for the European parliamentary elections this year, we identified the need to update these regulations, primarily to reflect recent changes to the system of registration for parliamentary and local government electors. In particular, the effect of an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1985 made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 is that an overseas Peer who has an anonymous entry in the register of local government elections will not be able to satisfy the conditions of entitlement to vote at European parliamentary elections. Consistent with this, the draft SI amends the current regulations to reflect that anonymous registration does not apply to overseas Peers for the purpose of European parliamentary elections.
Minor amendments are also made to ensure that the legislative framework for the registration of overseas Peers is workable and internally consistent. We understand that the number of Peers likely to be affected by these amendments is very small. The ONS registration figures for 2008 reveal that only four Peers were registered as European parliamentary overseas electors. I do not know whether any of those have applied to be anonymous on the register but they could only have been so since 1 June 2007. Their entitlement to vote was conditional on their having been on a register in the United Kingdom in the course of the past 15 years, so I think that four probably comes down to a much smaller number.
Finally, as regards the Office for National Statistics, we are making a minor amendment to the 2001 England and Wales regulations and the 2001 Scotland regulations to provide for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board. The regulations currently provide for a free copy of the register to be supplied to the Office for National Statistics. However, as the office’s statistical functions are now carried out by the Statistics Board, it is appropriate that the board should receive the register instead.
I thank noble Lords for allowing me the time to go into perhaps a little too much detail on this statutory instrument, but it is important that these matters are on the record. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for the very kind remarks he made about my voice in the earlier debate. However, I warn him not to be too overconfident or to think that my voice, odd though it may sound at the moment, presages anything other than triumph whenever the general election comes.
I admire the noble Lord’s resilience in these matters. I offer an apology in that I had assumed that we were debating all three statutory instruments together. That is why I made my remarks about data sharing, which are possibly more appropriate to these regulations than to the preceding ones. I have nothing further to add other than that I am interested in his estimates of the number of Peers who might be affected by this measure. I think he said originally that four Peers might be affected, and then suggested that the figure was coming down to a much smaller one. I remember that a Secretary of State in the Department for Education for whom I worked said that she thought three exam boards were too many and that one was too few. However, she was not prepared to speculate on what she considered was the right figure. I wonder whether the noble Lord will speculate on what the appropriate figure—if it is much smaller than four—is likely to be. He probably cannot answer that question and I do not particularly expect one. However, if he can, I will listen to it with interest.
I will speak briefly as I hope to preserve the Minister’s voice for the final order, which I regard as rather more important. I do not think this House could ever be accused of not looking after the interests of minorities. If we are seeking to preserve the interests of four Peers who are resident in the European Union for this electoral purpose, we really are looking at the minority of minorities. Unless, of course, the Minister anticipates a large flow of Peers disappearing from this House and this country for economic or legislative reasons. If we are seeking to preserve the rights of one Peer, who presumably may have triggered this whole exercise by seeking to preserve the anonymity of his or her registration, that seems to me a great accolade that we should celebrate in this Parliament; namely, that we are prepared to look after the interests of one Peer. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister may like to comment on it. Having made that point, this is obviously just a simple tidying-up operation and I hope that we will not have to ask the Minister to use his voice at great length to explain the origin of this change.
I thank both noble Lords for their firm support for this statutory instrument. I really do not want to go into the details. I am afraid that we are not preserving the right of any Peer; to make the law consistent we are saying that a Peer who found himself in the extremely unlikely position of having been on the anonymous list for local elections from 1 June 2007 would not have the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. The noble Lord tempts me to give a figure of less than four. I will: nought.